“Northern White Clouds” is one of Bill Monroe’s more experimental and unique tunes – a trait shared by many of the tunes he wrote later in his life (“Southern Flavor,” “My Last Days On Earth,” etc.). The unique nature of this tune can likely be attributed to its various reinterpretations, starting with the very first time it was performed.
Bill would have written this tune sometime between 1986 and 1988 while Billy Joe Foster was playing fiddle with the Blue Grass Boys. Bill had recently written the then unnamed “Northern White Clouds” and decided to play it onstage without much rehearsal. Billy Joe tried to remember the tune but ended up having to make up a lot on the spot. This improvisation became the foundation of how other fiddlers would perform the tune.
Years later, however, former Blue Grass Boy Richard Greene would record “Northern White Clouds” using a melody based on a note-for-note transcription of Bill’s third or fourth break on this tune during a live Grand Ole Opry performance and Richard’s newly developed fiddle “chop.”
There are conflicting stories about where the name of this song comes from. According to Mike Compton, Billy Joe Foster claims it was named after a toilet paper ad that Bill saw on the back of a semi while driving down the highway. However, a Mandolin Cafe member by the name of “Raymond E” claims to have been there the very first time “Northern White Clouds” was performed. According to him:
““Northern White Clouds” was written and named at Frontier Ranch just out east of Columbus, Ohio. If you’re onstage at Frontier Ranch you’re facing east. Monroe looked to his left, north, and it was a cloudy day, and there is where the name came from. The next weekend at the Opry I tried to get Monroe to change the name from “Northern White Clouds” to “Frontier Blues.” He would not do it. I said to him it would forever be known as ‘the toilet paper song.’ He knew nothing of the toilet paper but still would not change the name.”
These conflicting stories paint Monroe as either mischievous or clueless. Personally, I’d be willing to believe either.
The earliest commercial recording of Bill playing this song wouldn’t be available until 1999, when NPR released a live recording of the Blue Grass Boys playing on Mountain Stage in 1989 (Live from Mountain Stage). The band on this recording included Tom Ewing (guitar), Blake Williams (banjo), Billy Rose (bass), and Tater Tate on fiddle.
Bill only plays rhythm on this recording but based on Richard Greene’s story of learning this tune, we know Monroe must have played leads to this tune at least once. But without access to live recordings of Opry performances, Bill’s interpretation might be hard to find.
I’ve based my version on what I believe to be the earliest commercially available version: Jimmy Campbell’s Young Opry Fiddler (PRC1025). Released in 1993 and recorded during Campbell’s tenure with Monroe, this version captures the feeling of the original, which is no surprise because, according to “Raymond E,” Jimmy Campbell was at Frontier Ranch as well, watching the Blue Grass Boys the very first time they performed “Northern White Clouds.” Campbell’s recording includes David Grier (guitar), Mike Compton (mandolin), Terry Eldredge (bass), and a banjo player I wasn’t able to identify.
Here’s my version, recorded in Gränna, Sweden near the site of their 40th-annual bluegrass festival. I originally recorded the video on the cliff above the town but it was too windy to hear any of the notes. But it sure looked pretty.
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